Things Are Broken and Things Are Strange
Why Stranger Things opens up a space for a deeper consideration of The Underneath.
The first and last time I tried to publish an article on a real platform, I managed to produce this piece. “Things Are Broken” did not gain much traction in terms of clicks, but it did catch the attention of my favorite podcaster Paul VanderKlay. I got an invite as one of his “rando” slots here. It was great fun, and I count Paul as a friend and father of sorts, though we have not (yet) been able to meet in person.
I’ll stick with this theme of brokenness, but with a slight variation. I focused that piece on brokenness, but here I will focus on a deep and abiding sense that something is wrong and we really do not know what it is, and we certainly do not know how to talk about it.
My further investigations have opened up a whole world, sometimes called “this little corner of the internet.”1 In that original piece my focus was primarily upon the Roman Catholic Church. But as I have wrestled with this theme of brokenness and gone deeper, I have also gone broader. I believe that this brokenness is an issue facing almost everything, and not merely my own religious institution. In other words, the problem has scaled out for me, well beyond the safe and familiar arena of Roman Catholic philosophy, politics, theology, history, and culture. The issues go well beyond that space. We have forgotten how to be in the world.
If you pay attention (a super-loaded term that I’m only now beginning to gain a grasp of2) you can see that the so-called “Meaning Crisis” (coined by John Vervaeke) ramifies out, and manifests in, the oddest of places. Pop culture is a tell, especially pop culture that taps a vein, becomes a phenomenon, and receives wide attention. Netflix’s Stranger Things is such a phenomenon.
Stranger Things captures the simple but reverberating insight that something is wrong, and of course strange. The show itself is a bit of a rarity in the era of streaming, as it has captivated a large and wide audience. Its metrics and ratings are a throwback, every bit as “old school” as the content and era it depicts. It is delivered in the register of 80’s entertainment and has garnered an audience in a similar fashion. It showcases Gen X in its formation, a kind of Ur-story or origin of how we came to be. (I’ve often wondered if the Duffer Brothers were inspired by the Netflix documentary series The Toys That Made Us) With last week’s release of Stranger Things season 4 part 2, the demand was so high that the whole site was temporarily crashed. It has become a phenomenon, even inspiring a Lego set (which I may or may not own). Since the series may or may not be complete, I do not wish to make any totalizing claims or make final pronouncements on the show as a whole or as such. I merely note the show and the surrounding phenomenon as a cultural marker, pointing us to The Underneath, giving us a portal into the inner workings of things. Who knows where it will go and how it will all end, but in the meantime, we can wrestle with the fact that this show has become part of our “shared dream” and so demands we take a look at why. In other words, what does it tell us about us?
My sense is that the show participates in an ancient and profound pattern that operates on the level of the individual and the collective. The pattern goes roughly like this:
When you wake up, in the middle of the woods, confused and disoriented, you must do a deep dive. You have to go back and find out “what happened” so that you can make some kind of meaningful movement towards a proper telos. So we must journey back to chart a path forward. We must go down in order to go up. We must die in order to live.
So as an audience, we go are taken back to 1983. The characters must figure out the “Upside Down,” a version of The Underworld, or as I like to say The Underneath. What is in the Upside Down that needs to be rescued? Technically, it is Will Byers, but one senses that much more is at stake than a simple rescue operation. No one would or could believe that such a crazy dimension called The Upside Down exists. It is too crazy, too out there, too Un-American.
Stranger Things has been dogged by the debunkers as an indulgence, a hopeless romantic distraction, a show tapping into throwback porn, or in Ross Douthat’s use of the term decadence. The smear is straightforward: the show is pure nostalgia. The word “nostalgia” is a post-hoc fabrication, coined in mid-modernity. It was an attempt to capture-by-naming an emergent phenomenon, much in the vein of “ennui,” and, yes, “depression.” The desert fathers had their own coinage of an emergent phenomenon, calling this thing “the noon-day devil” and the medieval thinkers called it “acedia.”
Note well the pattern: the phenomenon is prior and becomes realized through naming. This pattern has been repeated from “in the beginning,” with Adam naming each beast, a pre-existing phenomenon, yet somehow summoned by his god-like ability to name essences. But nostalgia was (and is) real. You might say that the twin weights of modernity upon the modern psyche are nostalgia and depression: the feeling of being homesick with haunting sense that there is no ability to “get back there.” It is a powerful counterweight to the progressive-ameliorist mythos of constant and perpetual improvement that tracks along side us. The incumbent sadness of having no way back leads to feelings of helplessness and even despair. This pattern, however newly named, manifests at least as far back as Homer’s Odysseus. He longs for home too, and cannot get back.
Something was felt as real, but remained elusive because there was no real word for it. A certain “something” was going on and what that was, exactly, indicates that something was wrong, very wrong.
I want to stick with this notion that something is wrong, as I believe it is a kind of deep indicator of a real condition, a condition we are inclined to call depression. Calling this something depression encases it in amber, or casts it in stone. It has become medicalized and thus masterable or fixable, and easily dismissed. After all, our sense of depression has become entirely physical and situational. Depression is a hiccup in the machine, and with a little CBT tweaking here, a slight alteration in the diet there, perhaps an additive or a supplement from your local green grocer, and voila: fixed. This is the lie we tell ourselves that everything has a physical cause and so everything has a physical solution.
This solution, or perhaps method of diagnosis and medicalization, is completely indicative of the “iron box of modernity” and the presumption of machine-thinking in the vein laid out by Mary Harrington and Paul Kingsnorth in their conversation on the podcast with Rebel Wisdom’s David Fuller.
What if part of what is wrong is our sneaking sense that what is wrong is spiritual? Or that what is wrong falls outside our comfortable parameters of our day-to-day, normie-world expectations?
It is the same insight we see in Tolkien or Lewis from a bygone era. Namely, there is some menacing force, invoked through the scientific and industrial revolutions, that threatens our humanity. It is the mostly unspoken force behind nearly every science fiction story. We have awakened a beast through certain technologies and we, like Victor Frankenstein, have allowed our curiosity and hubris to cloud our better sense of things. The Machine or Monster, once awakened, wants.
We probably should not have done the thing because the thing has proven to be uncontrollable. There is no on-off switch, and there is a near 100% chance that someone has switched the Krusty Doll to evil.
Stranger Things fits safely within that paradigm. What is wrong is both technical and spiritual, both machine-inspired and spirit-haunted. These twin-pincers are set to crush, twist, mangle, and destroy. In the show, both menaces combine, or rather, both are in play and both are somehow connected. Something nasty is going on in the Hawkins Lab. At the very center is a young girl, a strange, powerful “freak” called “Eleven” or “El” for short. She likes Eggos and wants connection. She can move things with her mind.
It is safe to say that the comfortable normie world of the Wheelers, Sinclairs, Hendersons, and Byers are not exactly attuned to the spirit world. Though they are not interested in the spirit world, the spirit world—here the “Upside Down”—is most certainly interested in them. We have a classic set up of normie world versus monster world. The Lower Register and the Upper Register are about to converge upon this sleepy exurban town.
Paul Vanderklay often speaks of the Upper and Lower registers, in what he calls the “Two Worlds Mythology.” In essence the registers are a simple but evocative mapping of reality with a perennial presence in human culture: spirit and flesh, idea and matter, past and future. We fixate on the lower register, especially in the last few hundred years, because we have lost faith in the upper register. The world of idea and spirit simply do not exist, we insist. Incredible technological and scientific advances can take place when you ignore “the upside down,” so to speak. In other words, here and in Hawkins we do not talk about heaven or God or angels or spirits because we live safely in the disenchanted world, abiding in what Charles Taylor calls the "Immanent Frame,” filled with buffered autonomous self-actualizing selves. We are no longer porous to alternate incorporeal realities. But what happens when these “other” realities become interested in us? What happens when our technologies shift to the human subject? What happens when psionics—the ability to control the physical world with our minds—becomes real and is not only real, but being utilized in the epic struggle against the commies?
In my next post, I will explore the intersection of this notion of technology unleashed, with the idea of nostalgia, in both its positive and negative variations. I will argue why Stranger Things is worthy of our attention, and flesh out a notion I will call “Mere Nostalgia.” We need to talk about the strangeness of things, and Stranger Things affords such an opportunity. We must “go back” and find out, vis a vis Mere Nostalgia, what we have missed.
Figures in This Little Corner include many folks, but for me the primary youtubers and podcasters and thinkers include Paul VanderKlay, Jonathan Pageau, John Vervaeke, Jordan Peterson, and a whole host of others.